Land Hermit Crab Basic Care Guide

Updated on October 5, 2017
Mary Camley profile image

Mary is a hermit crab owner advocating proper care for these often misunderstood creatures.

Climbing to the Top!

Hermit crabs love to climb! Two of ours climbing a piece of plastic cholla.
Hermit crabs love to climb! Two of ours climbing a piece of plastic cholla. | Source

Old Wisdom and New Information

It has been long thought by many people that a land hermit crab in captivity requires little more than a small cage, a shallow water dish with a sponge, food, gravel and a few things to climb on and hide in. Over the years, much research has been done, and it's now known that they require more specialized care than traditional wisdom tells us. Sadly, many pet stores and beach shops still stick to the old methods with very little change and pass this misinformation on to their customers.

Land hermit crabs have specific needs as far as space, heat, and humidity. They are social creatures, and do much better in groups. Initial setup of a proper crabitat can be pricey but there are ways to save money. The good news is that once you have a properly set up crabitat, long-term care is relatively inexpensive. Hermit crabs can live for decades in captivity if they are properly cared for.

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Critter carriers and wire cages are not suitable for crabitats!

Plastic critter carrier and wire cages are too small and cannot hold in heat and humidity! Additionally, wire cages rust and crabs can break legs trying to climb them.

Tank and Substrate

A properly setup and maintained home for your crab is essential to your hermit crab's health and well being. Avoid using anything metal in your crabitat, as it can quickly rust in the humid environment. Rust is toxic to hermit crabs. Painted items should not be used either, as paint is also harmful to hermit crabs. Colored plastic items are usually ok, as long as the color is part of the plastic and not painted on coloring.

Tank: Glass aquariums meant for fish are the best choice for a crabitat. Glass tanks help allow you to keep temperature and humidity at proper levels. Hermit crabs are social, but also need their space. Allow for a minimum of 10 gallons of tank space per crab, 15 if they are a larger, jumbo size. As an example, if you are planning on 3 crabs, you will need at least a 30 gallon tank. If your crabs are very small, you could get away with a smaller tank for a time, but you'll have to upgrade as they grow. I will admit, one of the mistakes we made was getting too small of a tank, so upgrading will be a must for me as my hermit crabs grow. It's easier and cheaper, in the long run, to start off with larger than you think you'll need.

Lid: Glass lids are the best option, again for heat and humidity control, but other methods can be used. Some crabbers have used corrugated plastic (Coroplast) or plexiglass cut to fit successfully as well. A screen lid can only be used if it is modified by covering it in plastic wrap or something similar, but should just be used as a temporary measure. Make sure to secure the lid to the tank! Hermit crabs are adept at escaping if given the chance and could get injured as a result.

Lighting: It's generally recommended for hermit crabs to have a 12 hour day and night cycle. A regular aquarium hood light is usually sufficient. If you are using a heat lamp as a light source, use caution. Heat lamps can make it difficult to maintain proper humidity levels.

Substrate: A good substrate should consist of 5 parts play sand to 1 part coco-fiber, moist to sand castle consistency. It should be a minimum of 6 inches deep, or 3 times the height of your largest crab, whichever is deeper. Play sand is easily found at most hardware stores. Coco fiber bricks are cheaper and go further than the loose version, and when moistened to package directions, should get you close to the sand castle consistency. Eco Earth is a popular brand of coco fiber, and is the brand I use. If you need to add moisture, do it slowly so you don't over saturate it. Substrate should not need to be changed at all unless you have an emergency, like a flood, mold issue, or bacterial bloom. A properly maintained crabitat can help reduce the chances of one of these things happening, but they do happen occasionally.

Please note! Avoid using calcium sand, often labeled as hermit crab sand! It's not only more expensive, it can act as a cement when wet. This can result in your crab becoming stuck in its shell!

A Thirsty Hermit Crab

Hermit crab heading for a drink from the salt water pool.
Hermit crab heading for a drink from the salt water pool. | Source

Food and Water

Land hermit crabs need fresh water, salt water, and a variety of foods in order to remain healthy. Commercially available hermit crabs foods are not necessary and most contain ingredients that are toxic to hermit crabs. Copper sulfate and ethoxyquin are 2 such ingredients that are harmful. Avoid chemicals and pesticides, as well as table salt.

Food: Many foods can be given as is, others may need to be cooked. Any food needing to be rinsed should be done so in treated water. Foods needing to be cooked should be made without butter or seasonings, but EV olive oil may be used. The following is just a small sampling of the kinds of food hermit crabs can eat.

  • Eggs, boiled or scrambled, no seasonings
  • Eggshells
  • Worm castings (manure), yes...they love worm poo! Found in most garden centers
  • Greensand, a mineral mined from the ocean floor, can also found in garden centers.
  • Fruits, strawberries, bananas, watermelon, honeydew melon, mango, cantelope, blueberries
  • Veggies, carrot, carrot tops, cauliflower, broccoli, celery leaves, green beans
  • Flax seeds
  • Chia seeds
  • Rolled oats, NOT the quick cooking kind
  • Chicken, raw or cooked with no seasonings
  • Chicken bones, break them open so the marrow can be eaten
  • Potato, no green parts, eyes, or peels
  • Seafood such as shrimp, salmon, tuna, lobster (seafood must be cooked)
  • Spirulina

There are also a variety of bugs that they can eat including as mealworms, crickets, grasshoppers, and bloodworms. These can be found easily at pet stores. Some crabs may prefer freeze-dried versions, others might like canned or frozen.

Water: Fresh tap water should be treated with a water conditioner that removes chlorine and metals. Seachem Prime is one such recommended brand, 2 drops per gallon of tap water. Tip: Don't remove the foil from the top of the bottle. Use a toothpick to poke a small hole so it will come out in drops. For a saltwater mix, you will need ocean salt; many crabbers use Instant Ocean Sea Salt. Treat with Prime as for fresh water, then add 1/2 cup Instant Ocean per gallon. I use Prime and Instant Ocean myself, and recommend them both.

Your crabitat will need two pools of water, one fresh and one salt water. Both pools should be deep enough for your largest crab to fully submerge in. You will need to provide a safe way in and out of the water so they don't drown. Aquarium plants and vines or ladders made from plastic canvas work great. Just make sure they're secured, either to the pool or the tank so your crabs are not able to move them and strand themselves. It's a good idea to double up the containers you use to lessen the chance of flooding should one of the pools develop a crack.

Contrary to popular belief, sponges are not necessary and can actually harbor harmful bacteria. It's long been held that they need the sponges to drink from, but in reality, they do not. Hermit crabs will readily drink from their pools without the need for a sponge. As for needing them so they don't drown, as long as you have safe ways for them to get out of their pools they will be fine. Some shells or pebbles in the bottom of the pools can give a boost to smaller crabs.

Dinner Time!

Enjoying some worm castings for dinner!
Enjoying some worm castings for dinner! | Source

Temperature and Humidity

Hermit crabs come from tropical environments and need stable levels of heat and humidity. Optimum levels vary somewhat among different species. I'm most familiar with Purple Pinchers (Coenobita Clypeatus), so the levels talked about here are geared toward them. You may have to do some research if you have another species of hermit crab.

For all species, you should have a thermometer and a hygrometer to monitor levels. Combo units can be readily purchased, digital units are generally considered to be more accurate than analog versions. You may need to calibrate your unit.

Temperature: Tank temperature should be around 80 degrees. Heat can be provided with a heat mat, commonly called an under-tank heater (UTH). For hermit crabs, a UTH should NOT be placed under the tank! It should go on the side or back of the tank, on the outside. Ideally, it should be large enough to cover the back of the tank where the substrate does not touch. The goal is to heat the air in the tank, not the substrate.

Humidity: Proper humidity is very important to the health of your crabs, aim for about 80% humidity. Land hermit crabs breathe through modified gills that must stay moist. A dry crabitat will cause their gills to dry out, leading them to slowly suffocate. A properly moist (but not saturated) substrate and proper lid both help to maintain humidity. Avoid misting the tank! Over misting can make the substrate too moist and can lead to floods. If you need to raise your humidity, moistened moss pits (a plastic container of moss) can help, and crabs love them. Some crabbers will also use bubblers in the water pools; they break the surface tension of the water adding more moisture to the air.

Hermit Housing

Crawling around on a shell pile.
Crawling around on a shell pile. | Source

Shells

Your hermit crabs will need plenty of natural shells to change into as they grow. It's important to have at least 3-5 shells PER crab. Not enough shells can result in shell fights. It's equally important that shells be of the right size and types for your crabs. Shells should not have any jagged edges or holes. Clean shells before offering them to your crabs by boiling them in crab safe water. Never try to remove a hermit crab from its shell! This is extremely dangerous for your crabs, as they will let themselves be pulled apart before they'll leave their shell.

Please avoid painted shells, paint is toxic to crabs! This includes any shells that may have clear glazing. While they may look fun and pretty, they are harmful to your crabs. Hermit crabs like to modify their shells and will actually eat some of it. If the shell is painted, they will ingest that as well.

Shell sizing: Shell size should be determined by measuring inside the opening of the shell, not the entire shell. Measure the opening of the shell the crab is in and offer shells that size and somewhat larger. Sometimes they will change shells just because they want to, so they will need a few of the same size. Bigger shells are needed to accommodate for growth.

Shell types: Look mainly for shells with round or D-shaped openings, as they are preferred by most hermit crabs. Overall, different species tend to prefer different types of shells, but it's still good to offer a variety. Individual crabs will have their own ideas of what they want to wear. For example, purple pinchers as a species like round openings, but some individuals may want a D-shaped opening.

Climbing is Fun!

Tank Decor

Choosing items to decorate your crabitat is another important consideration for the enrichment of your crabs. Hermit crabs are avid climbers. The will try to climb on everything, including the silicone in the corners of their tank! Mine have done that on more than one occasion. While they are social, they still need alone time so hiding places are a must as well. Here are a few common ideas for tank decor.

Huts: Unpainted coconut huts (real or plastic) make great hiding places. A cheap and easy alternative is a plastic container turned upside down, with a hole cut for a door.

Plants: Plastic aquarium plants and vines dress up the crabitat, and give your crabs something to climb. Make sure they don't have metal wires inside of them. Live plants should be avoided. Some are toxic, but even those that aren't will most likely not last long. Hermit crabs can be destructive and make quick work of destroying a plant. Root systems for plants that do survive can also interfere with a molting crab.

Hammocks: Hammocks meant for reptiles also make a great addition for climbing. Just make sure its made of a crab-safe material.

Moss pits: A "moss pit" is just some sort of container filled with moss. Crabs love to hide and sleep in it. They will even eat it. The moss can either be dry or moistened. A moistened moss pit can help add humidity if you are having trouble getting it to optimum levels. Not all mosses are crab-safe however. Sphagnum moss and pillow moss are two examples of safe mosses. Don't confuse sphagnum moss with sphagnum PEAT moss, sphagnum peat moss is NOT safe.

Plastic canvas: Plastic canvas from the craft store is a good item to have on hand. Ladders and climbing structures can be made with it. I use small zip ties to put pieces together or attach them to other things.

Wood: Wood items and branches make a nice looking natural decoration and provide more climbing space. Like moss, not all woods are safe. Safe woods include cholla, grapevine, cork bark, ash, and maple. Other woods like evergreen woods, laurel, and yew should not be used.

You may also find it helpful to keep things like suction cups and zip ties for hanging and attaching decor. Self-stick plastic hooks are also handy. In my experience, the ones meant for kitchen and bath or outdoor use seem to hold up to the humidity better.

Hermit Crabs Love Moss Pits!

Moss pit made from a simple plastic basket hung on Command hooks, with vines and piece of plastic canvas attached with zip ties for ladders.
Moss pit made from a simple plastic basket hung on Command hooks, with vines and piece of plastic canvas attached with zip ties for ladders. | Source

Handling, Molting, and Activity

Handling: We all want to be close to and handle our pets, but hermit crabs are not like a dog or cat. Handling is stressful to them and should only occur when necessary for their care. Not only does it cause them stress, they need to remain in a warm and humid environment. Taking them out of the humidity of a proper crabitat makes it hard for them to breath and can damage their gills. Even if you do live in a naturally humid climate, it's still best to keep handling them to a minimum to avoid overly stressing your crabs. Crabs that are stressed might also give you a painful pinch!

Molting: Hermit crabs have a hard exoskeleton on the front part of their bodies, and they need to periodically shed that exoskeleton in order to grow in a process called molting. They will dig into the substrate to do this, building themselves a cave where they can safely molt. This process can take weeks or even months. Generally smaller crabs will molt more often, while larger crabs might molt less often. Each crab is different though, and there's no way to predict exactly how often an individual will go through a molt or for how long. Do not go looking for or dig up a molting crab! Doing so could harm them, so they should not be disturbed.

Activity: Land hermit crabs are generally nocturnal animals. They can and do come out during the day, but you likely will find that most of your pets' activity will happen at night when the rest of the house is asleep.

As you can see, there is quite a bit more to keeping pet hermit crabs happy and healthy than just a few inexpensive care items, and it can seem a little daunting at first. However, if you are willing to put in the expense and effort they need to thrive, hermit crabs make fascinating and rewarding pets.


© 2017 Mary Camley

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